directed by Henry Alex Rubin
& Dana Adam Shapiro
(Velocity, 2005)

It's not maudlin or sappy -- these guys would have recoiled from taking part in anything like that. It's not falsely optimistic or horrific, either.

What Murderball is, unexpectedly, is funny.

Nominated for an Oscar, Murderball also is hard-nosed and inspirational, and doesn't flinch from the reality of life in a wheelchair.

People end up -- or start life -- in wheelchairs for any number of reasons: polio, accidents, illness, war. But what the guys in Murderball have done is come to grips -- each at his own pace and in his own way -- with the fact they'll never walk again. And then they've taken that knowledge, tossed it out the window, and said, "Now what?"

For this group, it's wheelchair rugby. It's about putting their bodies on the line to become the best in the world at wheelchair rugby. It's earning, through sweat and blood, a position of strength.

And it's a great thing to watch.

Murderball (what players used to call wheelchair rugby, a name player Mark Zupan notes "you can't market ... to corporate sponsors") follows America's team, long the dominant force in the sport, as they prepare for a world championship defense and the Paralympics in Athens.

Zupan has become the poster boy for the team. He was paralyzed as a teenager when the pick-up truck in which he was riding (in the bed) crashed, and he hung on in a canal for 13 hours before being rescued. With his fiery goatee, blunt sense of humor and game-scarred chair, he's an intimidating sight. Even Mark's father says he wouldn't mess with him.

His competitive equal is Joe Soares, one of wheelchair rugby's first superstars. Cut from Team USA, an angry Soares takes his temper and his knowledge of the American playbook and moves to a coaching job with Team Canada.

Let the games begin.

While everyone's in this documentary because of wheelchair rugby, Murderball directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro are smart enought to know that the off-court drama is just as compelling. So when Zupin says if Soares were on fire "I wouldn't piss on him to put him out," you get just a small inkling of the passion these athletes have for their sport, and the devotion they have -- and expect -- from their teammates.

But underneath much of the movie is a surprising abundance of humor -- black humor, sometimes -- but a realization that, at its core, life has to have some lightness to be bearable.

Just learning how to find that equilibrium again is Keith Cavill, an avid motocross rider who's now in a wheelchair and just beginning his rehabilitation, body and mind. To watch him caress the scarred helmet he wore in competition, or sitting in his chair beside his bike, or contemplating the handicapped-accessible shower in his new apartment is to watch as the reality of the struggle ahead sinks in.

The first time a spark appears onscreen is when he meets the guys of Team USA.

Also at the beginning of their struggle are the wounded military patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, just back from the war. Their baby faces are in rough contrast to the prosthetic limbs they wobble in on. As Team USA members give them a clinic in wheelchair rugby, there's the beginnings of a sense of relief on the young faces, a glimpse of smiles.

Directors Shapiro and Rubin know this isn't the end of the road for these soldiers or these rugby players.

There are unexpected twists in Murderball. Watch the ubercompetitive Soares come to terms with his non-athletic son, and you can feel the film's strength: It's not touchy-feely, it's not preachy. It's just life lived well.

by Jen Kopf
21 April 2007

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